Samuel Beckett: Private In Public

Date: June 12, 1988, The New York Times, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 18,
Column 2; Book Review Desk
Byline: By Kenneth S. Brecher; Kenneth S. Brecher, an anthropologist, has produced plays in Los Angeles and on Broadway and is the director of the Children's Museum in Boston.

SAMUEL BECKETT wrote me a postcard.

I had helped to produce an evening of three of his plays in Los Angeles during the early 1980's and had arranged for the photographer Sherie Scheer to come to the dress rehearsal and take a series of photographs. I had heard that he chose not to see his plays performed before an audience but that he loved to see photographs of the productions. Shortly before we were to open the plays, the director, Alan Schneider, was killed in a traffic accident in London. He was crossing the road to mail a letter to his good friend Samuel Beckett.

A few months later I was in Paris and dropped a note to Beckett saying that I had brought photographs of the plays with me. Not wanting to disturb him, I offered to post them or leave them with the concierge or, if he wished, to bring them in person to wherever would be most convenient. I said that I would pass by his building on the Boulevard St. Jacques in the late afternoon and look for a response. It was there on a postcard tacked to the wall just inside the front door.

        Dear Mr. Brecher

        Friday August 3, 11 a.m., Hotel PLM-St. Jacques, 17 Bld. St. Jacques.

        Yours Samuel Beckett

It was pouring rain the next morning as I walked from the Metro station down the boulevard toward the large, garish tourist hotel. There was nothing of the Paris I loved in the hotel's neon sign, in its plastic lobby furniture or in the beehive of tiny rooms modeled on American motels. I knew the hotel because my sister and her husband had stayed there a year before on an eight-days seven-nights everything-included no-frills extra-cheap Paris-holiday tour. On my way back from climbing in the Indian Himalayas I was to have stayed with them at the hotel. But I went into serious culture shock when entering the lobby and fled to a tiny neighborhood hotel around the corner for one-fifth the price. Now I was returning to the same tourist trap to meet the Nobel Prize-winning author who was, for me and many others, the important writer of our time.

Scurrying to the hotel in the driving rain, I noticed a hundred yards in front of me an angular figure listing slightly to the left, in a shapeless dark raincoat and a beret. It looked like an elongated Giacometti sculpture come to life and, strangely, like Giacometti himself in the famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson where the sculptor is trying to protect himself from the rain by pulling his coat over his head.

I dropped back, unable to make out the face until he turned abruptly and I saw the unmistakable hawklike profile and the shock of steel gray hair. He disappeared into the crowded hotel lobby filled with tourists wearing name tags who were standing four deep in uneven lines beside enormous suitcases with identical tags.

I understood in that instant why Beckett had chosen this hotel: he would never be recognized here. He was as anonymous and indefinable as a character in one of his own plays. These tourists were of a world where men played golf in emerald green trousers with canary yellow sweaters and peaked caps bearing the insignias of the courses they had played in Sarasota and Pismo Beach and Desert Springs. They dressed in the same style when they traveled, and their wives dressed in accompanying hues of pink and turquoise with many bracelets on their wrists and never fewer than two tote bags on their shoulders. I watched the black-and-brown-clad Beckett move invisibly through the crowd and stand perfectly still near the center of the room.

I INTRODUCED myself and he suggested coffee in the shop just off the hotel lobby. We sat opposite each other. In the silence, while we waited for the waiter to appear, I noticed that he was bleeding from an open puncture on the palm of his left hand. Such is the power of Beckett and the aura of intense privacy that surrounds him that I felt I must not mention the wound. I handed over the photographs of his plays; as he carefully studied each picture, I watched a large drop of blood from the wound on his hand threaten to fall onto the photos.

I stared at his face, remembering that this was the man who had been James Joyce's amanuensis when his fellow Irishman had become too blind to copy out his own work. This was the man who, during the German occupation, had joined the Resistance. He had been forced to hide once in a tree under which enemy soldiers were gathered, and another time, beside a friend's elderly father, under the floorboards of a house. I had always felt his plays showed the same kind of courage: even in the most bleak, bizarre realms of human existence his characters go on questioning, searching for humor and clinging to life.

When we finally began to talk, I found that after more than 50 years in Paris he had not lost his Dublin Irish accent. He spoke with tremendous gratitude for and admiration of actors who performed his work. He seemed devoted to Billie Whitelaw and David Warrilow and Delphine Seyrig. He spoke of Madeleine Renaud's current revival in Paris of ''Happy Days'' and of an upcoming adaptation for the stage of one of his short stories. A young director had persuaded him to let him stage the work and Beckett, to my surprise, seemed pleased that it was happening. When I mentioned the loss of Alan Schneider, Beckett's face filled with sadness. He said that he hoped Alan's letter to him was not the only one he had been going to post that day.

The conversation kept returning to the theater, and I saw that I was with a writer whose greatest pleasure came from having his work performed. There was a twinkle in his eye when I told him that Leigh Taylor-Young had joined the company of ''Catastrophe'' - one of the plays we were doing in Los Angeles - and that she was a very attractive woman whose legs were shown to advantage in the staging of the play. When Beckett smiled and said, ''No harm in that,'' I felt the publike camaraderie of the theater where even in the most difficult of plays (''Catastrophe'' is a dark and disturbing piece responding to political repression and the imprisonment of writers in Eastern Europe) one always feels grateful to actors who illuminate the gloom without subverting the text.

I TOLD him I had visited a museum in Paris he might find interesting. It was the Post Office Museum and in it there was a room with postboxes from all over the world. They were generally the same height and usually red, yellow, blue or green. When I stood in the room surrounded by them, the mail slots began to look like mouths and I felt that they might begin conversing with one another. What I did not have courage to say to Beckett was that in that room I had had the sensation of being immersed in the world of his plays. Beckett listened avidly but when I encouraged him to visit the museum he said simply, ''I never go anywhere.''

Beckett asked many questions about my own background, and his warmth and kindness encouraged me to speak openly. He spoke of South Africa, about which he was both knowledgeable and up-to-date. After an hour, when it was time to part, I was reminded of the other Beckett, the playwright of ''Godot'' and ''Endgame,'' the dark figure I had first seen lurching down the boulevard. As he walked off into the rain he suddenly turned back to me and said, ''I hope we will meet again.'' Then, after a long pause, he added, ''Before the curtain falls.''  v

Excerpted from ''Too Sad to Sing: A Memoir With Postcards'' by Kenneth S. Brecher, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

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